March For True Colours


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By Sarah Lamptey
 
 
I’m mixed-raced; my father was brought up in England to Ghanaian parents and my mother is English. I’ve always lived in either Surrey or London and I’ve used the word “lucky” in the past, to describe getting so far into my twenties with only one direct experience of racism (aside from an overwhelmingly hostile reception in Budapest a few years back). The word never sat right though – in the world the decent and common-sensical are striving for, this kind of luck would be unnecessary. We’d save all of our good fortune for acts of God rather than human ill intent. Also, whether experienced late or not, the brutal truth remains the same. Humanity still has a distance to travel and no progress ever came from a rose-tinted perception. 
 
My one direct, racist confrontation was brief and relatively mild, although it shocked me at the time. Late last year, in Kingston, I crossed paths with a man who called me a “f*cking black…” I didn’t hear exactly what I was because I’d sped up, my legs seemingly taking their own initiative. My brain was busy regressing to that of a confused child, “But I didn’t do anything”, it repeated, whilst pushing out shocked, angry tears. Social media came into its own. I felt alone and in pain and was compelled share it the 21st century way: in the form of a Facebook status. The words of support and condemnation went on and on over the next few days, often in lengthy, considered and moving replies. In the face of the animosity people had come to show their beautiful – often hidden – colours and I came to feel more positive about humanity than I had before it had happened. Though less rosy, more real.
 
On Saturday 21st March, UN Anti-Racism Day, I saw journalist Owen Jones tweet that there’d be a march “against racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia” that afternoon in London, organised by Stand Up To Racism. The date signifies the anniversary of the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa. It was to be my first march – not my proudest admission. I’d never gotten myself organised and I barely made this one, only spotting the tweet an hour before it started. On the train I felt energised; I had a purpose. I was to be involved in what I completely believed in. A bizarre shyness and uncertainty flooded in though, the moment I emerged from Oxford Circus tube station into the masses of people. I doubted I was up to the task, whether I was loud and strong enough. I accepted a Socialist Worker placard that read ‘NO TO RACISM’, with ‘Migrants are welcome’ and ’No to Islamophobia’ underneath as bullet points. Holding it, I was verified as a protester, associated with resilience and resolutions yet I felt the opposite, perhaps remembering that reduction of myself as an “f*cking black” something. I walked up Regent Street to the assembly point at Portland Place and in record time made a new friend, Meriel. We stood waiting for the march to begin, making our observations to one another. The atmosphere was infectiously jolly, raucous even. There was a shifty moment when the megaphone leaders started chants that everyone else seemed to know, but the lyrics weren’t tricky. “We are Black, White, Asian and we’re Jews (and we’re gay!)”, to the tune of “She’ll Be Comin’ Round The Mountain”, quickly became my favourite. It really sticks in your head. 
 
The route took us down Regent Street, through Piccadilly Circus, down Haymarket and into Trafalgar Square. With speakers blasting dub in front, weed wafting to my right and noise all around, the protester in me took its first breaths, warmed up and burst into song. It occurred that I should believe in what I was chanting. In extreme cases it was a bit like my childhood, growing up going to church and missing out the parts of the hymns I didn’t absolutely subscribe to. Variations on political beliefs aside, it was an entirely pro-equality and pro-peace parade. I hoped that word and images of marching crowds across the world would get to victims of prejudice and lift them, even a little. As we came up to the Eros statue in Piccadilly Circus, the air changed. The crowd ahead started to sing with less bounce, more power, “There are many, many, more of us than you…”, pointing to where a group of men stood behind policemen. This was the Anti-Anti-Racism Day protest. Ironic that a statue of the God of Love was chosen as their meeting point. It was a feeble assembly, a few rows on the steps, standing and staring. Heart pounding, face hot, ground suddenly less of a support, I began to rewind. But stopped. I was struck, like a good hug that takes you by surprise and knocks you unsteady, that I was surrounded by the intense positivity of many, many strangers. More bright, true colours out of darkness.
 
15,000 people marched in London, Glasgow and Cardiff on Saturday. We know that world unity won’t be brought about any time soon. But to get involved, to join voices and make connections even on the smallest level is progress that all of us can manage. As I left, a woman pointed to my sign and spat,  “No, [migrants are] not welcome here”. Only she said it very, very quietly.

Strange Pain


Your words sliced through, I was in two

Walking fast away from you

Question marks from what would make

You want to make a strange heart break?

Who dreamed of nonsense, something light

And you were there and saw the sight

Of brown and a huge mass of hair

Bewildered while I passed you there

I gathered up your words of spite

And walked with them and held them tight

Till they burned with a new pain

And a fear I will feel again

Sleeping With The Light On


Sleeping with the light on
And I’m no child.
My night’s been wilder
Than the deepest jungle
At midnight and I’m riled
For it’s silly to be
Sleeping with the light on
When I’m no child.

Hiding under blankets
And I’m no child.
My dream was rockier
Than the steepest mountain
Walk at midnight
When friends are snakes
That come for a squeeze
So I’m not at ease
Without my blankets tonight.

Tears on my pillow
And I’m no child,
I’m big and tall
But small in a ball
For I’ve joined the strangest circus in town
And if I’m no child
Then I must be a clown:
Clutching at blankets and needing the lights
To get me through these midnight nights.

Chapter 5


Samuel and Theodore believed that Maxwell couldn’t speak but they were mistaken. Ten years ago Samuel and Theodore had been heated-debating. It may have been about whether ducks really were “lazy-mouldy-bread-eating quacks” or a revert to the controversial and emotional subject of the Disappearing Red Squirrel but it was definitely a crisp but sunny February morning, over breakfast. Maxwell felt his heart hit hard against his ribcage, more urgent this time and he had had enough. He was diagnosed with acute stress and Dr. Otter prescribed 72 hours of bed and voice rest. This was welcome enough news for Maxwell to kiss Old Otter hard on the mouth but of course he wasn’t quite friendly enough to share his line of work. Otter would have had The Pigs out pronto, those lowest of animals. Those that send out a stink which one very quickly learnt to associate with a nasty, punishing pain. They were down on the farm, looking to the untrained human eye as foolish and high on filth, when in reality they were military style training for the fight against the growing number of rascals about. The hard work took a toll on their rubbery pinkness and the swelling was from all of the exercise. The 72 hours passed in peace and pleasure in the form of television through windows and his partner, Tansy. She created a cocoon of nut roasts, bubble baths and other pampering scenarios which Maxwell would not detail to his friends, but a well-timed wink meant that he was a hero after the gymnastics they read into his three days in bed. Maxwell had intended to talk again but he suspected that Tansy preferred him schtum and anyway, he enjoyed his right to remain simply silent. Although lately he’d considered getting out of the business for good and doing a bit of yoga-meditation down in Brighton.

Chapter 4


Again, night. Benjie lay where he was left, at the side of the road. The light from the lamppost reached him and warmed his side. One pair of shoes passed and made their way somewhere, quickly. Benjie lay alone. His smell had grown to rage then left to explore as the day cooled. He was a mangled clump of grey and congealed blood, a perfect nature morte, a talking-point in an art exhibition. A nearby bush shifted and rustled, then was still. A few minutes later the heads of three grey squirrels appeared above the foliage, swung left, right and forward in unison and their bodies promptly followed, taking quick, careful steps through the leaves. Hazelnuts were clasped to their bellies as a last respect and their eyes glittered in the light of the lamp. They stopped in front of the bird, placed the nuts on the ground and began to speak. “Our father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name”, one of them started sombrely, snout to the sky, at once holy and reverent. “ Not the place, nor the time, Samuel”, the squirrel next to him cut in, shaking his head. “And you’re not of the religious persuasion”. Affronted, Samuel turned to him and replied, “But what art thee saying? How could thee doubt it? And if I ain’t, well, Theodore, what life in the world don’t need prayer?” Then, an answer of the darkest blue, perhaps the satin-ripple fall of a figure’s cloak and for five long moments they could not see. Instead, their blindness gave their ears the power to evoke Westminster, to hear Big Ben chime midnight. The great bell swung, heavy, under a spell and between each deep gong the three squirrels fumbled for the gasp of their breaths, the only other sounds they could hear. Each gong pronounced them alive and Benjie dead. Then, just as suddenly, everything was as it was. Only, by degrees, the temperature began to rise. Not that the squirrels had noticed yet. “What the bleedinell ‘appened, there?” Theodore recalled seeing Samuel’s expression before. It was when they thought they were going to be caught, in the last robbery. The fear had started in his foot paws which were rooted to the ground on tip-toes. His knees had wobbled and his hips had followed, shaking up to a face that sweated with the concentration of staying alive. His shoulders and his arms had held a trembling trophy of bananas in the air above his head. He appeared as though doing some form of complex Latin dance. The monkeys of London Zoo had torn and “a-a-a-a-ah”ed overhead, enraged. Samuel and Theodore sold the bunch to some rich and greedy pigs for twice the going rate to make up for it all, over at the city farm in Vauxhall. But Samuel’s face relaxed into its habitual amused order. “I’d have asked Maxwell but e’d be no help” he said, regarding the third squirrel lovingly. “Dumb pet.”

Chapter 3


Shortly after, Winston was on his shift. He started at Putney Bridge and as usual began to remove the chewing gum from the pavement. It was easier now that they had given him the stick and claw. It was kinder on his back and he could play games with it. He challenged himself with picking up a bottle top in one go or tweezing an apple core by its stalk. The bridge was wide and long and only ever very busy if the rowing was on. He crossed it, picking, then walked back, shaking his head yet secretly pleased at litter freshly dropped. He crossed the road and worked his way up the other side, picking. He would then negotiate Putney High Street and at this point it would become extra challenging. Today, though, had been unusually hot. The heat made crispy the teenagers, flirting, flustered, often leering, they would prowl and parade. It slowed and made sweaty the sports fans who he’d see again later, jeering and punching each other. As always, Winston became tangled in leads guiding guinea pigs for dogs but today they yipped at his ankles in irritation too. Like normal, prams blindly and sometimes not so blindly pushed into him but today he ducked, dived and had to weave around charging children too, loaded with ice-creams and whatever else they’d commanded. Winston had to fight the urge to use his stick and claw like a baseball bat. He passed the station to the hill and it was simpler, quicker and he would finish at the top of it. He was outside the Green Man pub and about to begin his last cigarette butt mission of the day when he saw Benjie. He stepped into the road, bent down and picked up the bird. The body was hot and heated Winston’s glove until the latex began to melt. He moved to the side and softly placed the bird in the curb’s cool shadow and protection. The people at the bus stop looked at Winston in a dismay that was quickly overcome by a familiar contempt.

Chapter 2


They had been waiting all day for night’s desolation and now it was time. The feathers had fluttered since 2.42pm when Benjie had been hit by a car. The tyre had pasted him to the road and took part of him, rolling, to a driveway in South Norwood. His blood had oozed out a short while later and ants had fanned away from him, out of respect. People at the bus stop turned away, suddenly strangely saddened, despite the plague that the living Benjie had symbolised to them. His pecking, scratching and scavenging had earned their disgust and they talked about him even when he was close enough to hear them. In reality Benjie held a mirror up to them and somewhere deep they knew how close their lives were to his. In front of them the wind cut through the heat and brought distress to Benjie’s right wing, which spread in the air as though about to take flight. His family had been incapacitated with confusion. They surrounded him in disbelief and horror and a few jabbed at gravel, mistaking it for food. A car then rounded the corner and they flew, wailing. The heat bore down upon the bird, beginning to heat and cook it. The blood seeped into the tarmac and the air was thick and sickly sweet.

Central Park, New York City, Day 1


A feeling such as reading the most beautiful, most vivid book. Sounds are so clear, colours are too bright to be true. Or is it a vision I’ve created so often in my mind that it’s now only almost tangible? The new winter’s cold revitalises, warmed through by the falling browns and oranges of a fading autumn. The lakes glitter and it’s midnight magic at only 5pm. Joggers and cyclists pace past with purpose. I’m going nowhere particular yet feel as though I’m going everywhere all at once, such is the completeness of emotion, of the senses. It can’t be picked apart this time. It’s clumped together, taking some inner, indistinguishable plasticine form. I’m mindless and may as well be formless. It feels as though I’m happy.

Notes on hugs from my two ladies


All-encompassing hugs from my two ladies. Their weight I admired – me, the mathematician, the calorie wizard, the difficult guest at a dinner party and in general. Their joy and sometimes crankiness in life. The absolute void in their death. The void in my living. Rubbed out parts of the world as to walk around years on is to try to accept the forever change. Their weight, my stress was their love of cooking: jam and jollof. And every part was love. Her laugh was one loud ‘Ha!’ and smiles; her squeeze was to be reassured. You mattered. And her’s – The Big Love’s – were strong, as though to give me more than just my name. The final one was still warm. Gone, but I’d never be hugged again and my last memory is the one I took, knowing it was meant for me.

Chapter One


On a still, silent street it hunches under a dim lamppost. The light drops, rounds the figure’s back and falls to a puddle at its feet. Around, a few lost and wandering rays find their purpose in a deadlock with thickening wisps of mist. A lorry passes; first felt, then heard, then seen. In its dumb trance it turns right at the lights and will shortly become part of the conveyor belt to Dover. To take steps closer is for it to fade from monochrome filter to a palette of sepia and watery pigments. The sky, deep, dark blue with dreams and nightmares is moon and star-less. There is no room for them tonight. The weak, burnt orange of the lamp barely picks out the grass a few metres away. A fly draws patterns in the light while it sleeps. The silhouette bobs and shuffles from foot to foot in giddy excitement. Dribbling and demented from the pleasure of it all, soon it will have the compulsion to remove its cloak. But then with squinting uncertainty it could be carved of onyx. Some small steps closer. Chisel in grip it scrapes a vertical line off a sign, now in view, reading ‘PUTNEY HEATH’. The procedure has the precision and solemnity of a holy ritual. It stops, panting, and some time passes in gargoyle lifelessness before it cracks and crumbles to begin with the same measure on the horizontal. At last the chisel takes its final peel upwards, stripping stark black from naked white and leaving the question mark of an empty space behind. Suddenly the street is deserted. Only the fading clash of chisel on pavement remains. The lamppost stands over it, reluctant in its revealing and unable itself to hide. Its only offering flickers for the letters ‘PUTNEY HEAT’.